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Teaching Opinion

Educators Must Disrupt ‘Colorblind Ideologies’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 04, 2020 29 min read
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(This is the second post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways to respond to educators who say they “don’t see race” when they teach?

In Part One, Makeda Brome, Ashley McCall, Cindy Garcia, Jamila Lyiscott, Julie Jee, Kendra M. Castelow, Ed.S., Janice Wyatt-Ross, and Maurice McDavid “weighed-in” on the question. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Makeda, Ashley, and Cindy on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Dr. JoEtta Gonzales, Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., Sarah Norris, Martha Caldwell, Oman Frame, Leah B. Michaels, Gina Laura Gullo, Kelly Capatosto, and Cheryl Staats contribute their responses.

“Educators have a responsibility to interrupt language that is harmful to students”

Dr. JoEtta Gonzales has been a teacher, principal, district office administrator, and director of a national equity center. She has taught courses in multicultural and bilingual special education at Arizona State University, and leadership in special & inclusive education at the University of Kansas. She is currently the superintendent of the Casa Grande Elementary school district in Arizona:

“People are people; I don’t see race.”

“I only see one race, the human race.”

“I don’t think of you as Latinx; I see you as a person just like me.”

Statements like these are harmful. They send a message that we all have the same dreams, values, struggles, and worries. The notion of “not seeing race” or being “colorblind” serves to negate the cultural values and lived experiences of individuals from diverse backgrounds. “Colorblind” ideologies are problematic because they fail to consider racism, past or present, as determining factors associated with disparities.

I’ve seen these phrases used in defense when an individual is afraid to discuss racism. Many educators use phrases such as these to avoid the discomfort that is necessary to push their thinking. I argue that speaking of another person’s race or culture should evoke dissonance, but that doesn’t make it racist or offensive. On the other hand, ignoring race and culture is offensive.

Many of the “colorblind” narratives voiced in schools stem from notions that “different” is deficient, inferior, and/or substandard. Individuals using these narratives may see the knowledge and skills of students who are racially diverse as liabilities rather than assets. These beliefs and dispositions stand as barriers to the high expectations necessary for strong student outcomes. Educators have a responsibility to interrupt language that is harmful to students. To do so, they need a strong sense of self and a response strategy.

Reframing “colorblind” ideologies

The best way I’ve found to respond to educators proclaiming they “don’t see race” when they teach is to use reframing. The aim of reframing is to shift one’s perspective. Because the words we choose to describe things, people, and events affect how we think about them, reframing language and expanding perspectives can help us think differently about the students we teach. Broadening perspectives can elevate strengths-based approaches that make a difference in student outcomes.

When reframing the “colorblind” narrative, I introduce the term “race-consciousness.” For example, when a colleague states that they “don’t see race,” a response I typically use is, “I prefer to think of myself as race-conscious.” I go on to explain that to be race-conscious means to celebrate the things that make us unique. Race-consciousness also conveys that physical features such as skin color can and do negatively impact the life opportunities of some individuals; and as educators concerned with equity, we have to see each other’s unique qualities so we can acknowledge and address the inequality and injustice that has been perpetuated based on these differences.

Examining implicit bias

One of the places I’ve started is with myself. I know that disrupting “colorblind” belief systems involves examining my own implicit biases about race and skin tone. I recently introduced an online tool called the Implicit Association Test (IAT), put out by Project Implicit, to my academic-leadership team to help us learn about our implicit biases. The test requires participants to rapidly classify words and images as “good” or “bad.” Using digital devices, individuals make split-second “good/bad” distinctions between words like “love,” “joy,” “pain,” and “sorrow,” while at the same time sorting images of faces that are distinctly diverse. The test uncovers implicit biases by identifying changes in reaction times that occur as words and faces are paired.

Many of us who took the test were surprised by our results. Collectively, we felt like we had a great deal of self-awareness about our biases prior to taking the IAT. Instead, what we learned is that we’ve likely been compensating for some deeply innate biases we hadn’t actually considered. Our discussions since taking the IAT have helped us grapple with the discomfort our implicit biases present. We know if we want to speak up when we hear someone say something that contradicts the reality of racism, we have to take stock of our own unconscious biases and address them just as we plan to address others.

Our discourse and efforts at equity need to include a serious and open disruption to “colorblind” ideologies, as well as knowledge about our own implicit biases. We can change the trajectory for our students if we demonstrate the courage to take a stand. Our students shouldn’t have to wait.

“ ‘I don’t see race’ represents the height of selfishness”

Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., provides technical assistance for school improvement with a specific focus on equity. He works with districts around the country to identify root causes of achievement gaps and formulate pedagogy- and policy-based efforts to redress the underperformance of vulnerable student populations. Follow him on Twitter at @DrYemiS:

The statement, “I don’t see race,” represents the height of selfishness particularly when made by an educator. It says essentially, “I don’t see your entire-life perspective as meriting my consideration. I will tell you how I think you should experience your existence.”

And yet, I do understand why many teachers think colorblindness is an enlightened perspective. I don’t (generally) see it as a mean-spirited sentiment—though it often prioritizes the comfort and convenience of adults over the well-being of kiddos—but we must recognize that it is ultimately wrongheaded and a tool that sustains problematic and discriminatory structures that limit the opportunities for nonwhite students. In my most generous assessment, colorblindness represents the desire to rise above the harmful and dehumanizing perspectives that are informed by racial stereotypes in order to see students as unique individuals with their own special set of talents and interests. While colorblindness is better than overt bias, it actually serves to provide a safe space for the persistence of racially exclusionary practices and beliefs by advocating for an indifference to the racial/ethnic diversity of the human experience. While the well-intentioned colorblindness perspective may seek to remove barriers of bias, it more likely actually serves to restrict the ways in which students are able to engage in learning experiences by constraining the scope of their humanity.

As educators, our primary goal is to create circumstances that allow students to think critically while learning key concepts and skills. In order for learning to be meaningful, we want for students to be able to develop their own access to the big ideas that can be leveraged to further direct their own discovery rather than being dependent on the teacher. Though the discussion of race makes many uncomfortable, the truth in America is that we experience our lives on certain racialized terms. In a multiracial, multiethnic, multilingual, multicultural America, the meaning of events are filtered through the lens that we’ve each constructed given the social spaces we inhabit. None of us escapes this; even when we make an effort to not see race, others see us as racialized beings, and that has ramifications big and small.

When students are limited in their expression of self, they are less able to draw on their academic and social schema to forge enduring understandings which is an inherently inequitable condition for learning. Colorblind teachers will be less able to lead all of their students to big understandings if they are not able to provide meaningful opportunities for them to build analogous bridges that support the most important ideas we want them to learn. Without the schematic anchoring of conceptual understandings, few details can be retained and later recalled.

There are two important cautions to consider, however. First, in the effort to embrace the diverse perspectives of our students, we should not compel them to speak for their entire racial/ethnic/linguistic/cultural group. Rather, center instruction around the broadest, most global conceptual targets and then design opportunities for students to connect their ideas to the objectives for enduring understanding. In this way, students have opportunities to leverage their unique academic and social-/cultural-schema in order to make conceptual connections—which is a fantastic opportunity for us to learn more about their out-of-school backgrounds in the process. Second, don’t expect for students with whom you share similar identity backgrounds to also mimic your exact and specific racial/ethnic lens. There are many ways to experience any particular (or combination of) racial/ethnic identities, and it is just as inappropriate to expect everyone to have the same exact sense for what it means to be a person of your race/ethnicity as it is to deny that we experience life through a racialized lens.

To defeat racism and ethnicism, we are wise to acknowledge how our racial/ethnic identities are informed through our social indoctrinations. To lean into the understanding of difference offers more righteous opportunities to develop practices that achieve the goals of freedom, liberty, and justice for all. “I don’t see race” is a selfish sentiment because it requires that students suspend their worldview in favor of vantage points that are more consistent with your own. It says, I will value your perspective given the extent to which it agrees with mine. It says, I will be able to leverage your understandings in the interest of powerful learning experiences only if they mirror my own. This is not only selfish, but it is a form of cultural imperialism. It unilaterally imposes the power and influence of the teacher’s perspective without the consideration of what students bring to bear. This is fundamentally inequitable because it means that the students inclined to see the world in similar terms as the teacher are advantaged over those who do not.

If you don’t see race, you are unlikely to see the full experience of nonwhite students. Rather than saying, “I don’t see race,” say, “I see the whole student—including race but not limited to stereotyped notions of racial identity.” As you make the effort to authentically engage students in this way, you will be able to see their uniqueness is a function of how they make sense of who they are as racial and ethnic beings and, thus, you will be able to see them in much higher definition than was before possible.

“A white educator speaking to another white educator”

Sarah Norris is a school designer with EL Education. She works with educators across the country to create more equitable spaces for teaching and learning and address our country’s “education debt":

Every person in this country absorbs the lesson, often unconsciously, that “race” is meaningful. Sometimes, from implicit or explicit white supremacist perspectives, race “justifies” social inequality; other times, like in the Black Arts Movement, it is a powerful cultural unifier. Yet “race” as we think of it was invented not so long ago to justify systematic exploitation of enslaved Africans. Though not a biological fact, it is now a social fact that shapes all our lives. Think of it like “Wednesday"; there’s no intrinsic “Wendesdayness” that makes Wednesday Wednesday, but we organize our lives around a vague common understanding of Wednesday, just the same.

Someone might say they “don’t see race” because they wish racism wasn’t a factor in our lives, or because they know race was invented to justify racist systems, or some combination. However, acknowledgement of racism isn’t condoning racism and acknowledgement of an individual’s racial identity does not reinforce racism: It says, “I see you, as well as I can, and I am committed to always trying to see and understand more.”

In my experience, the phrase, “I don’t see race,” is used by white educators. So, as a white educator speaking to another white educator, and coming from a place of inquiry as well as conviction, I respond to this statement with questions that acknowledge the world we live in, in service of the better one I know is possible.

Seek connection

When I hear, “I don’t see race,” I first acknowledge the instinct for separation it sparks. It’s so tempting to think of myself as a more woke white educator than a person saying this. I want to feel different and to grab hold of that difference on behalf of my own comfort. But keeping my distance from other white people isn’t going to bring more love and justice in the world; it’s going to allow the gears to grind on.

I think about how I can connect with this educator: They are aware of the power of racism to cause harm and they don’t want to cause harm.

So, I start with “yes” and “we,” followed by a question: “Yes: we see that racism causes harm and we want to protect all our students from harm. What do you see that you don’t like seeing?”

What some teachers don’t like seeing is students behaving in ways that make race visible. They may have noticed 1st graders gravitating to partners of the same racial identity, or white 10th graders arguing with black peers about what the legacy of American slavery means for people living today. Teachers who “don’t see race” may connect these moments with large-scale social inequalities, but they see the root problem as interpersonal, and they want an interpersonal solution.

The idea of “not seeing race” reinforces individual and interpersonal interpretations of racism, and those narrow interpretations encourage us to focus on the intentions of individuals, rather than on the impacts of systems on all of us. As a teacher of mine once pointed out, “You could beam every ‘racist’ in the country into outer space tomorrow, and the systems we have would keep doing better things for white people.” Our racist systems continue to operate unchecked when white people like me act as though “colorblindness” is possible and desirable.

Ground in impact

At this point, I want to shift the conversation away from intent and toward impact, so I ask: “What do you want the world to be like for your students?”

The answer is almost always a variant of “I want race to not matter.”

Not seeing race, then, is meant to halt the process before it can start; to say, “I won’t see, so I won’t be part of the problem. I will teach not-seeing, so I will make a future in which nobody sees.” This often comes out as: “I don’t care if they’re black, white, green, or purple. If we don’t teach kids that race matters, then racism will disappear.”

But, just as the educator knows that race does matter because racism causes harm, kids know, too, or will soon. They will learn this regardless of the racial identity of their teachers. If they have white teachers, they will learn it whether their teacher is a member of a white-supremacist group, or works for collective liberation, or says that they don’t see race.

They will learn that racism causes harm because every system in our country produces racialized outcomes; the evidence that these systems produce better outcomes for white people is visible everywhere, and kids can’t help but see it.

Acknowledge kids as observers

Our own worldview colors not just what we see but what we think kids can see. So my next question is: What do your kids seem to see? What questions do they ask?

Kids see the patterns produced by our racialized systems—who lives where, in what houses, whose parents have what jobs, who is sitting in AP Calculus class, who is sent to the office—and as humans, they want to assign meaning to them. They see real differences in material conditions, day-to-day experience, and how well-being and pain are distributed, and they are trying to figure out what that’s about, and if it’s OK. They will be looking to land on either, “This is as it should be” (so, there is something wrong with those who suffer most under racism) or, “This isn’t as it should be” (so, there is something wrong with the world).

If an intention not to treat some students better than others on the basis of race makes us unwilling to acknowledge that our country does it through the systems that shape all our lives, we miss an opportunity to communicate to kids of color: “You are not less-than, and you are not wrong. The world is wrong. I see your color, I see you, and you’re amazing.”

With our white students, we miss an opportunity to teach them that the patterns they see around them—which may seem like evidence that only they are amazing—are the result of injustice they, too, can work to change. These opportunities matter, not just to help young people see their own situations and inherent worth clearly, but so they will become people who seek to do what they can to build a better world.

Bring kids in as agents

Teachers who decide they “won’t see” choose an antidote that allows systemic harm to continue, and that causes fresh interpersonal harm, by denying the lived experience and agency of the students right in front of them.

To bring kids in not as passive recipients but as active contributors to a better world, I next ask: What do you think your students can do about all this?

Whatever their answer, I share my experience:

My students showed me that they need me to see them as all that they are. They know racism shapes their life, and I was missing a chance to help all of them make sense of it, and to learn from kids of color about their experiences. They are looking to adults to help them interpret what they see, but we’re not good at it, either.”

I joyfully offer evidence of what kids can make and do when we acknowledge their lived experience and how it differs from others’, and, with them, investigate why. The organization I work with, EL Education, maintains a collection of remarkable student work from all over the country, and it is full of proof that when kids are seen and loved for all the identities they hold, they both flourish and contribute. Here are a few examples

Learn from the conversation

Finally, I think an important part of my response is to feel where I myself am still shaky as I engage with this person. Do I hold myself at a distance, especially if they answer my questions in ways I find disturbing? Do I stumble or hedge when I say “white” or “racism,” or if I need to respond to an argument that blames marginalized people for their own marginalization? That shakiness, doubt, and wish for disconnection is racism working through me, and I take it as an indication of what I still need to learn or unlearn.

So much of what I encounter every day as a white person will lead me to think that I am what’s normal, and things are essentially as they should be. In the face of that, it is hard and sometimes lonely work to acknowledge that the world is wrong. The alternative—that kids of color are wrong, including kids in preschool, who are already treated as problems—is both absurd and immoral. So let’s get to work with our hands outstretched, ready to connect.

From colorblindness to race-consciousness

Martha Caldwell and Oman Frame, authors of Let’s Get Real: Exploring Race, Class, and Gender Identities in the Classroom, are veteran educators and co-founders of iChange Collaborative. They provide diversity, equity and inclusion consulting; professional development; online courses; and identity resource groups for educators:

Race may be social construct, but it has profound psychological and material effects on people of color. Systemic racism, institutionalized through Jim Crow laws, unfair housing practices, inequities in the justice system, lack of access to health care, voting rights, education, and citizenship, still plagues us today. The history of race in the U.S. explains far more about the wealth gap and the achievement gap than biological or environmental differences.

Yet some educators still say they’re colorblind, meaning they see everyone the same way, no matter what color they are. They believe talking about race brings attention to division that makes race relationships worse.

Yet colorblindness denies the consequences of race. Colorblindness ignores the history, politics, and economics of racism. Even worse, it ignores the students of color standing right in front of us who are living and breathing the politics of race every day. Teachers who don’t acknowledge that race exists and that racism is a problem invalidate these students’ life experience.

Race-consciousness, on the other hand, acknowledges the prevalence of racism in the lives of people of color. It recognizes inequalities in education, the legal system, housing, and health care. It investigates disparities so disparities can be corrected. Race-consciousness highlights differences, yet embraces cultural differences with respect and admiration. Racial history emerges as a source of pride when seen through the lens of resistance and survival against difficult odds. Race-conscious educators understand we must go through race. We can’t go around it.

Research shows that avoiding the topic with children serves to create racist mindsets, while investigating race correlates to higher self-esteem, increased self-confidence, academic achievement, and ethical leadership. We need to talk about race. When we don’t, we miss important opportunities for learning, for healing. Until racism can be seen, it can’t be addressed. Until it is addressed, it can’t be undone.

We can’t ignore that structural inequalities are affecting the personal biographies of our students, so what can we do to cultivate race-conscious educators? We recommend approaching educating educators just like you approach educating students.

  1. Tread gently, if possible. It doesn’t hurt to acknowledge that a colorblind educators’ intentions may be good and affirm that they care about their students. (This does not excuse them or make them unaccountable for the outcome of their actions with students.)

  2. Talk about yourself. Tell stories. For a white educator, this might mean sharing the story of your own journey to race-consciousness. For an educator of color, it might mean sharing how you feel when your experience is not acknowledged.

  3. Avoid debating the topic. In conversations about race, debate too easily devolves into defensiveness. When this happens, positions become entrenched.

  4. Empathy is a more effective approach. Ask questions and be prepared to listen more than you speak.

  5. Recommend resources.

  6. Don’t expect resolution in one conversation. Becoming race-conscious is a process that usually takes more than one pass and requires reinforcement.

  7. Recognize that colorblindness is a systemic problem, so take a systems approach. Ask your school to offer professional-development education and faculty readings to address the importance of identity exploration to cultivate race-consciousness.

  8. Enlist support for yourself. Find like-minded educators who share your values and commitment. Activist burnout is real, so take care of yourself. People of color need resource groups and so do white anti-racist educators.

The good news is that colorblind educators do love their students and want what’s best for them. We often see them move quickly into race-consciousness once they understand the differences in race-based experiences. They often become strong advocates for students of color and quickly find ways to incorporate their stories, their cultures, and their histories into their teaching. Teachers and students alike are capable of grappling with the complexities of socially constructed, racialized differences. Exploring our identities through reflection, storytelling, inquiry, and action, teachers and students can position their racial identities in the context of a larger sociopolitical, historical context. Then we can more toward justice.

Frame responses around “differentiation and classroom climate”

Leah B. Michaels, a national-board-certified teacher, has taught English, English as a second language, philosophy, and theory of knowledge to students from grades 6-12 in England, the Bahamas, and several schools in the United States. A proud union member, she is on the board of directors for the Montgomery County Education Association and serves as the English Department chair at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md.:

Recently, a teacher said to me, “I don’t care if they [students] are black, white, or purple.” We weren’t talking about race at that moment but about building relationships, generally, and what he meant was that he cares about every student. First, there are no purple students and, second, if you’re truly interested in building relationships with all students, then you can’t ignore key elements of their identity and lived experience. When educators say they “don’t see race,” what they’re really saying is that they are willfully refusing to recognize important parts of who their students are. Students don’t leave their identities at the door when they enter the classroom, and if we care about them, we need to recognize and celebrate the whole child we’re trying to teach, which includes acknowledging the long history of racism and systemic inequalities that inform every bit of how schools work (or don’t) and for whom “traditional” instruction is designed to teach.

A productive way to respond to the “I don’t see race” crowd, then, is to frame the response around best practices in regards to differentiation and classroom climate. With gratitude to authors and teachers I’ve learned so much from (Ibram X Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, Bettina Love, Matthew Kay, to name just a few), to any educators who say they don’t see race, I say it’s because you’re not looking. And if you’re not actively working to disrupt the systems, policies, and other educational choices that create barriers to student achievement, then you are complicit in maintaining a status quo that has routinely—and by design—ignored the needs of students of color.

Most kids will have predominantly white, female teachers like me for most of their K-12 experience, so it is essential for people like me to commit not only to seeing race but to elevating race-consciousness as a matter of urgency. Not “seeing race” is used to mean, “I’m not a racist,” but this is a very limited way of looking at the issue of race in the classroom. White teachers in particular need to do the work of examining our implicit biases, reading critical race theory and other scholarship around race, interrogating curriculum (e.g., whose voices are not represented?) and pedagogy, and pushing back—every time—at the suggestion that awareness of race is not crucially important to knowing, loving, and teaching our students.

Colorblind perspectives do not benefit students

Gina Laura Gullo is an educational equity consultant with GLG Consulting and a researcher of unintentional bias and interventions that serve to lessen the impact of such biases. She also is an adjunct and mentor in educational leadership at several Mid-Atlantic universities.

Kelly Capatosto is a senior research associate at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Kelly’s work focuses on race and cognition—how people’s perceptions of race impact our decisionmaking and maintain social inequities.

Cheryl Staats is an education author and researcher with a background in implicit racial/ethnic bias:

A colorblind ideology in which racial and ethnic identities and classifications are disregarded has detrimental effects for education. The notion of “not seeing color” can flourish particularly well in this sector given that the largely white K-12 educator population does not reflect the diversity of many schools’ student bodies. As such, one approach to fostering equity for all students is to intervene when colleagues make statements that reflect a colorblind perspective. Doing so will begin to recenter conversations toward equity.

Consider the following examples:

“I don’t classify my students by their race or ethnicity; I don’t see color.”

Strategy: Uplift historical and structural dynamics and/or note how not seeing color centralizes white privilege

Responding to the oft-repeated refrain of “I don’t see color” can take several forms. One approach is to raise points about the historical and structural factors that shape student experiences, such as the dynamics of segregation perpetuated by neighborhood housing policy that affect school district and building assignments. Failure to understand these dynamics and their enduring legacies can yield an incomplete perception of who students are, the challenges they face, and what life experiences they embody. As a result, educators can perpetuate a framework of white privilege by erasing the aspects of students’ experiences that fall outside of the dominant, white culture. Further, teachers who lack this context risk using curriculum that fails to resonate with the diversity of their student class.

Second, not seeing color also propagates a white-centric racial framework and perspective in which white privilege is maintained. In essence, the underlying message here is the concerning idea of viewing everyone as white coupled with the notion that nonwhiteness is inferior.

“Everyone’s the same, and that’s how I treat all of my students.”

Strategy: Question the reality of that “sameness” and the implied value-added of it

Statements like this, however well-intentioned they may be, falsely perpetuate the notion that all students share a uniformity of experiences, hence enabling the teacher to treat them as the same. Among the flaws with this narrative is the reality that race and ethnicity shape all individuals’ experiences, whether that’s through the benefits of white privilege for white students or the various forms of oppression and structural barriers that students of color face. Indeed, the idea that all students are the same denies experiences of oppression, rejects the uniqueness of cultural heritage, and places white normative standards as a blanket universality on students of color.

Relatedly, seeing everyone as the same effectively negates the racial and cultural aspects of one’s identity and experiences. This is known as a microinvalidation, which is a form of a microaggression. An example of this would be the expression that “America is a melting pot.” This idiom essentially nullifies the racism students of color experience and implies that race-based experiences are insignificant.

Finally, pursuing the sameness of treatment for all students can hinder teachers’ interest in tracking and/or intervening when a student or group of students experience educational challenges that may be shaped by the contours of identity. As such, if students who need targeted assistance are denied that opportunity under the guise of “sameness,” the value-added of this sameness is questionable at best.

“I have a hard time seeing implicit bias because I don’t see race.”

Strategy: Recognize the universality of implicit associations and how espousing colorblindness doesn’t absolve the need to address implicit bias

Sentiments similar to this one seemingly use colorblindness to grant permission to avoid addressing implicit bias, microaggressions, or related social phenomena. Using implicit bias as the example here, a possible response would be acknowledging that one’s stance on color blindness does not alter the reality that we are bombarded with and unconsciously internalize associations from a very young age. Moreover, these associations may not accurately reflect a given group. For teachers, these unconscious dynamics operating within a colorblind ideology can lead to challenges in understanding how those biases may affect expectations or student behavior or academic performance, thereby hindering their ability to fully nurture students’ full potential. (A resource that explores implicit bias in the education sector further is our book, Implicit Bias in Schools: A Practitioner’s Guide.)

While these and similar remarks appear to propagate an egalitarian perspective, allowing colorblind comments to persist unchecked can be detrimental to students’ educational experiences. While not all responses must entail extensive dialogue, meaningful responses can open impactful conversations.

Thanks to JoEtta, Adeyemi, Sarah, Martha, Oman, Leah, Gina, Kelly, and Cheryl for their contributions.

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